Note (9/20/2007): this was a paper I hurridly did while in graduate school back in 1994 (that's before they had spell checkers). Did you see how I spelled "hurriedly?" Enough said.

Check the references. 1994 was a long time ago. W. Buckleitner


















Historical Examination of  Research on
Technology and Early Literacy





“Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable From Magic”

Arthur C. Clarke








CEP/TE 912

Psychology and Pedagogy of Literacy






Warren Buckleitner


May, 1994





What do flashmeters, magnetic sound track projectors (now known as tape recorders) tachistoscopes, perceptoscopes,  EDL Controlled Readers, Writing to Read, and The Reader Rabbit, ... all have in common? All these devices have been used to help children learn to read and write over the past 40 years. The use of technology in literacy instruction has a long history in theory, but only recently -- since the 1940’s, really started to develop in practice. Like the chicken (instructional technology) and the egg (industrial innovation), it has piggybacked technological innovation of the times.


The roots of using technology in learning go back to the Sophists of Greece (500-410BC)  whose teaching methodology employed “systematic expression of the principal of shaping the intellect.” The Sophist instructional procedures were inherently systematic... the student knew what was expected, so this methodology led naturally to a “programmed” style of instruction.  A good discussion of the early forerunners of instructional technology was found in the textbook A History of Instructional Technology  by Paul Saettler of Sacramento State College (1968).  This book covers the role of influence of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Thorndike, Dewey, and   Montessori, all of whom have had an influence on forms of instructional technology. I was interested to learn that Maria Montessori created the “Montessori didactic apparatus; a block of wood with ten holes of different sizes; so that learners could get instant feedback.” who, in 1907, Following Montessori, Sidney Pressey, a psychologist at Ohio State exhibited a device that was the precursor to the “Teaching Machine” revolution when he exhibited a device with four multiple-choice questions with four keys. If the student thought the second answer was correct, he pressed the second key, while a record of progress was kept automatically.


During the period from 1900 to 1950, however, technology “only washed lightly upon the shores of instruction” (Saettler).  In this same time span, when high speed printing technicians,  radio, sound motion pictures, television, and other pieces of communication technology were invented, developed, and exploited, reading teachers largely failed to apply these devices in quantity to the instruction process. In this paper, I examine three empirical studies, and three literature reviews or essays from the post-World War II period concerning the use of  technology  in the teaching of helping children become literate.  In the process of doing this paper, I have come to realize the breadth of this topic, and would ideally like to spend far more time reviewing the research of each period. In light of time and length constraints, however, I’ve done my best to find reports of work that capture the thinking of the times.



Chart: The six reports analyzed

Type of Technology

Empirical Study

Literature Review/Essay

1940’s The first real applications of technology in teaching; in the form of mechanical devices, or “teaching machines.”

(no extensive literature review available until the 1950’s)

The Bexley Reading Study– Josephine H. MaClartchy, in collaboration with Renshaw, Educational Research Bulletin–  Sept. 1946

A Critical Review of a Portion of The Literature on Teaching Devices --Douglas Porter, Harvard Educational Journal– 1957

1960’s Still under the influence of Skinner’s (starting in 1954) teaching machines; a closer look at the realistic use of teaching machines, and the dawning of the microcomputer age.

Autotelic Response Environments and Exceptional Children–O.K. Moore, Special Children in Century 21. Seattle, Wash., Special Child Publications­–


Teaching Machines and Reading Instruction --Edward Fry– The Reading Teacher–

 Sept. 1961

1980’s The microchip provides color graphics, bleepy sounds, and an interactive environment; resulting in many reading packages.  Two looks at the same computer-based instructional program typical of the times: Writing to Read

Evaluation of the Writing to Read Instructional System– R.T. Murphy & L.R. Appel. ETS, Princeton, NJ   1982-1984

The Importance of Being Rigorous: Research on Writing to Read– K.A. Krendle, & R.B. Williams, Journal of Computer-Based Instruction–



The 1940’s

World War II created an enormous instructional problem. Thousands of soldiers had to be trained. The “visual-form training” method made use of a projection device known as the tactistosope and was given to the navy cadets (my father, for example) to help them quickly gain essential knowledge. It was developed in part Samuel Renshaw of Ohio State, who’s efforts where attributed to the greatly increased the efficiency of the aviators to recognize enemy aircraft (my Father can still identify a plane by it’s shape from the ground). His “flash learning” techniques were later adapted to other parts of the military.


 It was interesting to learn that “visual-form” training started 5 years before the war was inspired in part by a visit from a Polish mathematical prodigy to Ohio State who displayed uncanny abilities to memorize numerical sequences.


“During a demonstration, he gave an evening lecture, he drew 100 squares on the board and divided it into 100 squares. Members of the audience filled in the squares with random numbers. He then, with a quick glance at the figure, recite the numbers in any order -- around the edges of the square, down the rows, and so on.” (MacLatch 1946, p. 143).


Would it be possible to foster this uncanny ability in children? Could this improve the reading process? These were the questions of the times that led Renshaw to the challenge of using his machines to develop children’s ability to see, which was seen as a skill, like any habit. In other words, reading is a visual experience, and that words are seen one “flash” at a time. If children could handle more flashes, they would be better readers, it was presumed.



During 1944-45, five studies were conducted related to technology being adapted to the reading instruction of early elementary children, according to the literature reviewed, the best known of these being the Bexley study, primarily because of the involvement of Renshaw. It is one of the best reports of an empirical research effort during this period of time, with an excellent description of the methodology, and discussion of implications. It  was published in the Educational Research Bulletin, Sept. 16, 1946).


What was most interesting to me in this study is that a variety of teaching techniques that were used, including the tachistoscope, in the delivery of reading instruction. The study actually could have been an inquiry into whole language pedagogy, if  it were done in the 1990’s.


 “The teachers in the first grade started with the premise that reading was a visual experience. Therefore, since we were going to introduce tachistoscopic training in February, we did not dissipate the children’s  interest by teaching phonics. Our first problem was to develop a true definition of reading for each child through his own reading. For this purpose, we used experience stories.  Before Christmas, the children were reading ten to twenty pages daily in books which they had not read before. The first series used were stories about the children’s own pets. The first stories were short, not more than two short sentences. The intention was to keep the children from substituting memorizing for reading. The objective was to simulate for the child the reading experience of a competent adult reader... the adult read new material to get new ideas. He re-reads only when he wishes to do so. (p 141).


 Later in the year, the word-flash technology was delivered using the  tachistoscopic (a device that hooks onto a slide or filmstrip projector that which controls the time of the exposure, from 1/100th of a second to 1 second, as well as the area exposed). It was administered to the 121 first and second graders in three, 20 minute sessions per week.


“Before each slide was presented, a descriptive statement was made, such as “the next word has 4 letters.” This was followed by the signal “ready” an interval of 2 seconds “now” and second interval of 2 seconds, which preceded the exposure of each slide.  The children reproduce what they had seen on the screen with paper and pencil immediately after the exposure. As the training progressed, children learned to focus their attention for a short time on the screen and then to relax until the signal was again given. During the 16 weeks of practice, the quietness in the room was remarkable. Many of the children learned to acquiesce, which is on of the essential characteristics of all learning. One six-year-old boy phrased it as follows when he exclaimed quite unexpectedly on morning: “I look very carefully. Then I just write any old letter, and I’m generally right.” He was generally right, for in correctness in reproducing the slides his record was one of the highest among those of the 120 children in the study.” (p. 148)


The curriculum had significant effects, according to the report:  “the children making unusual progress during these four months.” There evidence was a normed test, the Gates Primary Reading Test. The children scored 6 to 8 months beyond the school level, and the average scores of the 114 children are more than 1/2 year in word meaning, and almost a year in paragraph meanings, beyond their school placement. Their conclusion:


The evidence is clear and unambiguous: children who have had adequate tachistoscopic training in the first grade read more fluently and understandingly, show distinctly great skill in number work, exhibit a grater range in number work, exhibit a greater range in observational thinking, in are work, and son on, than children o equal native ability, under teacher of equal competency in the same curriculum, who have not had this form of visual perceptual training, ....Tachistoxpoic training  will make achievement greater, imbue the pupil with the feeling of mastery or aesthetic gratification which accompanies the growth of competency and set the course of sound mental habits, which, if continued in subsequent grades, may prevent the waste of failures or indifferent achievement.” (Renchaw)



It is important to consider the possibility of a  major confounding variable in the study, however, in that two innovative techniques were used: exposure to realistic and meaningful literature and the tachistoscopic training (which was also used for math). So we don’t know if the gains reported in the study are due to the exposure to the interesting books or the technology. (Whole language advocates looking at this study in today’s research climate would be quick to point this out).



In 1954, B.F. Skinner published his paper that launched the teaching machine revolution. Unlike the earlier tactistoscopes, these machines were interactive, and brought with them a firm educational philosophy; that of behaviorism. Before the 1960 research on the effects of the machines were hard to find.  “More than three-fourths of all the research on programmed instruction has been undertaken since 1960” This written in 1966! One of the earliest reviews I could find was by Douglas Porter, from the Harvard Educational Journal (Vol. 27, No. 2, 1957), which among other things, lists an alphabetical listing of types of devices used in instruction, along with a classification of them by types.  Porter reports “a search of the literature has revealed no other review covering such a wide scope of devices.” He classifies the devices by stimulus devices (motion picture, TV, phonograph, opaque projector) response devices (galvanic skin response indicator, automatic test corer, alertness indicator), and Stimulus-response devices (tachistoscope, reading films, reading accelerators, and memory drum). I found this to be a useful categorization of the different technologies being attempted in instruction up to the late 50’s. In addition, Porter looks at 29 different studies that have been done on the effects of the range of devices, and digs up a patchwork of claims. He summarizes the research in terms such as Theoretical issues, Curriculum,  and Acceptance of Mechanical Teaching Devices. Not surprisingly, most of the research covered shows that the technology was a superior, more efficient mode of teaching, as measure by test scores on the content taught, when compared with “traditional” instruction. What I found most interesting was his summarization of the acceptance or lack of acceptance of this technology in the classroom. 


“In general, the elaborate mechanical devices should be regarded as a last resort to be used when other methods have failed. Instruments .... are not a substitute for a good teacher. Audio-visual devices can an d should, from time to time, be used in the classroom but their proper place is in the language laboratory. Many teachers who believe in the oral approach justly feel that they could get better results if they were given smaller classes and more hours per class rather than more machines” (page 131).


After reading this review, I was frustrated,  in that it did not deal directly with literature on the study of technology in literacy instruction before  the 1950’s. One can conclude that, for the most part, there was a reluctance to adapt these machines in practice; while the teaching machine revolution that was going on in industry and other fields. The earliest more “global” commentary or review  I was able to find was an essay that appeared in The Reading Teacher (September 1961) by Edward Fry, the director of the Reading Clinic at Loyola University. Entitled “Teaching Machines and Reading Instruction” it provides a glimpse of some of the issues going on as a result of the teaching machine revolution, and how the literacy community was responding. This article was effective at providing one side of the debates that must have been going  on  (and that is still going on) essentially divisions between behaviorists and humanists; and teaching machine advocates and those favoring “traditional methods.”  Fry states that “a teaching machine is more a methodology than a piece of hardware.” It appears that in most peoples thinking, teaching machines were synonymous with behaviorism. Fry is clearly a proponent of this technology, and provides some rationale for it’s use in his essay, as he tries to convince the conservative body of teachers that teaching machines are a better way of helping children learn. Later he provides an example of what he means by “teaching machine.”


“The student reads a question and then responds by writing the brief answer on a piece of tape exposed by the machine. He moves a lever which simultaneously exposes the answer to the question and covers his written answer with a sheet of glass. The student scores himself right or wrong and moves the lever which presents the next item. Each item is carefully sequenced so that the question sand bits of information are presented step by small step and lead the student toward the desired learning goal.”


Clearly this is a behaviorist stance on learning. Fry states later that teaching machines present information in small units, the student gets instant feedback, and the material is carefully sequenced. He states that


• Reading comprehension is a natural for machines that require students to answer question based on reading a prescribed passage.

• Phonics can be taught to the very young

• Context clues can be taught by having the student supply the missing word in a sentence.

• Reading readiness pictures can be shown under transparent keys.

• More advance word attack skills


He enthusiastically claims that teaching machines can teach almost anyone anything -- he cites these as examples “Elementary Spelling, English, Golf, Statistics (I could’ve used that!), English Grammar, and even  Molecular Theory for First Graders! It is interesting to contrast this with the quote I found from Bruner (1963)  “any subject matter can be taught to anybody at any age in some form that is honest.”


Fry predicts that “if teaching machines catch on, probably many major publishers of textbooks will be developing teaching machine programs, both as the chief source of instruction and as supplementary material to more traditional textbook and classroom presentations.” He tries to reassure teachers that they will not be replaced by automation -- rather “the machine will relieve hours of drudgery of correcting students’ papers.”


The 1960’s: An Innovative Researcher, or a Quack?

One innovator in using technology in literacy was O.K. Moore, who designed an instructional setting with the intention to teach preschoolers, some as young as 2, to read and type. While his empirical work is rarely cited, and as it turns out, he may have been a bit of a quack, his name does seem to come up in conversations of educational technology. 


One of Moore’s primary contributions was the use of technology in a non-didactive manner (unlike the “teaching machine” mentality). In teaching children to read, Moor had them strike the keys of a computer-based electric typewriter at their own will. The typewriter was engineered so that the a voice would say the name of the letter pressed by the child. Thus, as the child sees the letter struck, he hears the name of the letter from an auditory response within the system.


According to Patrick Dickson, on the day of an important demonstration of his system to the press, his voice generator broke down and he had an actor climb inside of a box to fake the voice. After a period of free exploration on the keyboard, further programmed instruction would start to tell the child what letter to strike. By keeping all keys except the named one fixed, the electronic teacher gradually “teaches the child the location of the keys on the entire keyboard.” By means of additional programming, the child is able to take dictation from the computer, pressing keys and forming words and sentence with little error.


As a result of Moore’s efforts, he claimed that  children who used his machine could enter the first grade with a fourth-grade reading ability.  In addition, he claimed,  the child’s motor dexterity and control of 6 year old children, as reflected in their writing, was like that typical of seven- and eight-year-olds.


Moores programmed instruction approach holds challenging implications -- however his data his empirical evidence is sketchy at best (with no mention of how many children he worked with or how long the effects lasted). In hindsight, it is highly unlikely that one activity could have had such dramatic results in light of the talking word processors available today.  It is not surprising that  it is difficult to  find any mention of Moore’s  and none of his work appeared in scholarly journals.


1980’s The Microcomputer

At the end of the 1970’s the Commodore PET and Apple II were released, changing the future of educational teaching machines for ever. Now, the ideas of O.K. Moore and B.F. Skinner could re-emerge in the form of much less expensive software designed for these machines. Software came on the market based on a mastery learning model, providing reinforcement in the form of smile faces or even a short time with a arcade game (e.g., The Reading Machine by SouthWest EsPsych Publishing interjects 5 minutes of successful word recognition with 1 minute of “star blasting”).   One can only wonder what Skinner would do with this technology; actually, one can pretty much guess what he would do.


Software of the times reflected the current thinking of educational psychology -- with a wide range of mastery learning based early learning software packages introduced onto the market. At the same time, constructivists such as Papert, a student of Piaget,  armed themselves with their own brands of software; choosing LOGO (of which there is a wide range of research and empirical studies), or clever games such as “Gertrudes’s Secrets” in which games of logic where hidden in a castle, which children could informally discover.



One of the most dramatic examples of the use of technology in the delivery of early reading instruction is IBM’s Writing to Read  (WTR) program, first introduced in 1983.  The WTR program centers on the formation of letters and words, phonetic spelling, structured use of word processors and typewriters, and creative expression of written ideas.  In all, there were 27 research reports I could find studying the effects of the program, summarized in the literature review “The Importance of Being Rigorous: Research on Writing to Read.” Among these is the highly controversial ETS study, which found “significant gains due to the WT program” compared to traditional instruction. This study, commissioned by IBM, looked at 10,000 students who used WTR. “WTR children wrote better and progressed faster than the national norm samples on standardized reading tests” was the conclusion.


This research was key in the decision make substantial investments in computer labs in schools. For example, two entire states, Mississippi and West Virginia adapted the approach for any elementary school who requested it. To this date, many children go down the hall for an hour of Writing to Read.


While the ETS study looked at a large group of students, the data was taken from a smaller group of “core” of 800 students. The achievement measures for these students included standardized reading tests, writing samples selected by individual teachers (not randomly collected), and spelling words. The researchers reported that kindergarten students performed significantly better on the tests than their peers in the non-WTR classrooms. I was interested to find that  “significant effects” gradually dropped as time went on. In other words, shortly after the release of the program in 1982 and 1983, there was a larger number of studies reporting significant gains of the program. Toward the end of the 80’s,  there was far less activity, and no activity of the program in the 90’s. WTR seems to be a trend that had a 6 year life and then faded, along with the tachistoscope.


I found the literature review on the WTR research to be extremely interesting and insightful as a critical look at methodology in generally.  The authors were effective in applying solid research criteria to the studies of the earlier 8 years, and help to put the whole issue into perspective. They show how the WTR labs typically have 3 or 4 teachers per 15 children, compared to 1 per 25 ration of the control groups, and that none of the studies accounted for the novelty effect of the microcomputer itself -- far more likely to be a factor in the early 1980’s  (e.g., they do not look at other microcomputer-based courseware and compare it to WTR). Other potential confounding variables could be that  WTR is a supplement to regular reading instruction so that many of the children involved in the studies, in reality were receiving a double dose of reading time (WTR + their regular reading program). Also raised in this review is that none of the studies have looked at anything other than short term outcomes on test scores. They conclude “the lack of consideration of such obvious confounding factors raises serious questions about the validity of the positive influences attributed to Writing to Read by some of its evaluators.” (p. 82)


The field of instructional technology has changed tremendously since the 1940’s. It will be interesting to see where the next 40 years takes us.





Fry, E., (1961). Teaching Machines and Reading Instruction, The Reading Teacher Vol. 15: 43-5


Krendle, K.A., & Williams, R.B., (1990). The importance of being rigorous: Research on Writing to Read Journal of Computer-Based Instruction Summer 1990, Vol. 17, No. 3 81-86


MacLatchy, J.H. (1946). Bexley Reading Study, Educational Research Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 6


Moore, O.K. (1964). Autotelic Response Environments and Exceptional Children.  Special Children in Century 21. , Special Child Publications, Seattle, Wash.


Murphy, R.T., & Appel, L.R. (1984). Evaluation of the Writing to Read instructional system: 1982-1984. (Second Year Report). Princeton, NJ: ETS


Porter, D. (1958). Teaching Machines, Harvard Graduate School of Education Association Bulletin, Vol. 3


Saettle, P., (1968) A History of Instructional Technology McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, USA